In our darkest moments, we seek someone who will guide us toward light. From 2010-2012, writer Cheryl Strayed acted as such a glimmer to hundreds of strangers, overseeing an advice column called “Dear Sugar” with tremendous empathy, openness, and honesty. Now, thanks to a well-crafted adaptation of Strayed’s book (a collection of these letters and responses) by Nia Vardalos, audiences at Victory Gardens Theater have the opportunity to bask in Strayed’s glow as well. In a 90 minute journey filled with words powerful and profound, Victory Gardens’ production of Tiny Beautiful Things is a moving, cathartic theatrical experience.
Going into the play, I must admit to being worried that a dramatized version of Strayed’s advice column might suffer from over-sentimentality; many of the letters, after all, deal with depression, relationships, grief, and those things which people find easier to say to a stranger rather than a friend. Thoughtful direction by Vanessa Stalling and a tremendous performance by Janet Ulrich Brooks, however, help the production mostly avoid the maudlin and find a balance between sugar and salt.
Stalling's decision to move the setting from Strayed home to a coffee shop, for instance, instantly creates an atmosphere of shared experiences; it’s already a place where strangers interact and, potentially, connect. The set, skillfully designed by Courtney O'Neill, works wonderously alongside Theresa Ham's costumes and Rachel K. Levy's delicate lighting. Stalling enhances the production further with her strong blocking choices, elevating the energy with purposeful movement but taking time to bask in the slower moments.
Janet Ulrich Brooks' performance as “Sugar” similarly makes intentional shifts from fast to slow, from insightful to witty. Her no-nonsense approach to the text grounds even the most sentimental sequences, rendering them more meaningful because of her unadorned sincerity. Listening to her present Strayed’s words felt like a therapy session with a trusted confidante—an emotional, healing experience with someone who actively listens and carefully crafts their response. And judging by the tearful audience on opening night, I’m not the only one who felt at times as if Ulrich Brooks was speaking directly to me.
It’s not the most action-packed play you’ve ever seen. There’ll be no dramatic fight scenes or musical numbers. But it’s a show that celebrates the power of words to connect, to move, to heal. Sometimes, nothing can be sweeter than that. (Emily Schmidt)
Tiny Beautiful Things continues at Victory Gardens Theater through Oct 13. Info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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